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Part VI: And In The Duodenum Bind Them
As I have previously noted, I am a big believer in the power of drinking to solve problems.
No, not my drinking. That’s just stupid: even my mentor Arghash had known that. It’s other people’s drinking that solves my problems. For example: Two days ago, Djug the goblin got drunk enough to think he could get away with burgling an orc-lord’s summer house. The orc-lord’s dire-wolf ate Djug and broke off two of its teeth. Pulling the teeth for the orc-lord solved my problem of paying the rent for my veterinary practice.
Well, I didn’t say it brought in repeat business.
But sometimes I join people in drinking, because we have the same problems.
In this case, I was drinking with Ulghash, Arghash’s son. Ulg and I grew up together. Only he became a doctor and a self-made man. Well, orc. And I inherited Arghash’s veterinary practice.
Hard feelings? Why? Ulghash and Arghash both got what they wanted: namely for Ulghash to rise to a higher level than fixing up animals. I, on the other hand, as a human chattel slave, wasn’t going to build my own business in the Dread Empire. So we all got what we wanted: I grew up as a higher class of slave, and Arghash got someone to keep the practice going.
Even so, Ulghash was saying, “Days like this I want to take Dad’s practice back from you.” He drained half his beer. “At least your patients don’t decide they know better than you.”
“That’s right,” I agreed. “Their owners do it. I told you about the human vampire-wannabe Countess who kept her basilisk on a diet of blood, right?”
“Yeah, but at least you can feel sorry for the basilisk.” Ulghash held his head in his hands. “I’m treating a clan chief for impotence. ‘Use the herbs,’ I said. ‘The herbs work. And stop trying every day, for the Dark Ones’ sakes. Relax a bit.’ Did he listen?”
“What did he do?” I asked.
“Got someone else to look at it.”
I stopped in mid-pull from my beer. “You don’t mean he got her to… look… at… it?
“Yep. He wanted it stiff. Well, it is now. I may have to cut it off before it gets infected. At least he can still piss, or he’d be dead already. He just has to watch the, uh. The range.”
I groaned. Then I told Ulghash about the de-petrification unguent (because you really don’t want to treat basilisks and cockatrices without a supply on hand) and sold him a jar at cost.
He shook his head. “It may be too late already. Blood doesn’t pump well through stone vessels. But he can damn well apply it himself.” He thanked me and we went home.
I hadn’t been back in the office long enough to do more than check on the recovering patients – business was looking up for a change – when Harriet knocked on the door.
“I thought we didn’t have any more appointments for at least an hour?” I asked.
“I think you want to see this one.” Then she giggled. Not a “something’s funny” giggle, but the “too weird” kind. Harriet found something weird?
This was a woman who had impersonated a dark elf for three years, tended bar for orcs, and crawled around in dragon guts beside me. Harriet didn’t weird easily. I peered into the waiting room.
There was a wizard and a dwarf standing there. Either of those would have been fairly unusual. What was almost unheard of was that they were the same person. His beard was long and yellow. His staff was carved with runes. Tellingly, the staff appeared to have started life as a pickaxe handle. And he wore long mystic robes rather than armor or mining gear. Beside him was a small wooden cage with an iron-grated door. I couldn’t see what he’d brought in.
“And how can I help you, sir?” I asked.
“I need you to take a look at this,” he said, imperiously. The merest suggestion of uncertainty tinged his voice. “So to speak.” He raised the carrier. I looked inside. The interior was dark. I waited for my eyes to adjust.
The interior was dim. And empty.
I opened my mouth to ask what sort of joke this was, and that’s when I heard the snoring.
Very carefully, using my left hand, I reached into the cage. I touched a warm, furry surface for an instant before it jerked away. I felt the wind of snapping teeth on my hastily-withdrawn hand.
“Okay,” I said. “So, you have an invisible what in there?”
“A, uh… weasel,” the dwarf said, looking away.
“A weasel,” I said. “And what did you do to it? Invisibility spell gone wrong?” The dwarf looked uncomfortable.
“What did you do to it?” I repeated.
“It ate… an item,” he said at last.
I rolled my eyes. “An item?” I asked. “If you tried, could you possibly be less specific?”
The dwarf looked puzzled. “No.”
I sighed. Dwarves. Too literal for anyone’s good.
I started over. “So the weasel ate a magic… item. And it turned the weasel invisible?”
“Was this something edible, like a potion or a powder? Or was this something that was not supposed to be eaten?”
“It was not supposed to be eaten.”
“Well, you’re going to have to tell me what it was, or I don’t have a prayer of getting it out for you.”
The dwarf finally said, “A ring. A plain, brass-and-silver ring.”
“Brass, eh?” Sure. Dwarves didn’t think anyone else could recognize gold. “Okay. I can give you a laxative, and in a few days…”
“No,” said the dwarf.
“And why not?”
“I need it as soon as possible, and I can’t take the risk of missing it.”
I sighed. “Well, we can try an emetic.”
Despite my gentle hints that what followed was likely to be disgusting, the dwarf insisted on watching me induce vomiting.
“You haven’t told me your name, sir dwarf,” I said while we waited.
“That’s right,” he said.
“Well, you have me at a disadvantage,” I said. “And I don’t work at a disadvantage.”
“I could pay you to,” he said.
I thought about this, and then named a sum. The dwarf winced, but handed over a carefully-counted out purse without a word. And that’s when I began to get really worried. I’d been expecting a name.
But just then, hacking sounds began to emanate from the cage. Sodden, half-digested food appeared from nothing and splattered on its floor. Eventually, wet, gleaming stomach fluids coated the bottom of the cage. But no ring.
“It’s left the stomach,” I said.
The dwarf cursed, which sounded like he might join his pet in vomiting. “You must operate, doctor.”
“On what?” I said. “I can’t operate on something I can’t see. Especially when I have no idea where it is. I’d kill it.”
“No!” The dwarf opened and closed his fists. Finally, he said, “Is there nothing you can do? I was told you were a good animal doctor.”
“This isn’t doctoring,” I said. “This is like performing surgery on a ghost, O Dwarf-Who-Will-Not-Be-Named. I’m afraid I can’t help you with this. You’ll just…”
“I can pay you,” he interrupted me.
“It’s not really going to matter how much you can pay me if I can’t do anything,” I said.
“Ten thousand gold,” he said.
I felt the floor sway under me. “Bullshit,” I said through the roaring in my ears.
“Ten thousand. In gold,” he repeated. This time he was looking me in the eyes.
“And how do I know,” I said, forcing myself to remain calm, “that you even have ten thousand in gold to your lack of a name?”
The dwarf unbuttoned his traveling cloak. It took awhile, because of the hidden buttons that had made the cloak look as if it had been casually draped over his shoulders. The cloak fell to the floor as if sucked down, with the distinctive sound of falling chain-mail. I picked it up. It took most of my strength. Through a frayed seam I caught a glimpse of gold chain, and sucked in a breath. My hands sprang open, and I leapt back, just in time to stop the weight from crushing my toes.
“One moment, Sir Dwarf,” I said. He nodded, and I steered Harriet back into the operating room.
“James, you have gone white as a dark elf’s hair. What’s wrong? You need me to get rid of him?”
“I don’t think you can,” I said, staring at the door. “I’m not sure we can.”
“What the hells was that cloak?”
I took a breath. “What was the most valuable metal the dwarves ever made?”
“Mythril, if you believe in that sort of thing,” Harriet said. “The legendary, incredibly light silver-steel they made for the elves. Supposed to turn swords and yet be light as a feather-down coat.”
“Yes,” I said. “That’s what everyone remembers. Except the orcs, who fought the dwarves directly. Incidentally, why is ‘mythril’ spelled with a ‘y’?”
“It’s just that legendary,” Harriet said.
“Well, maybe. But according to the lore, spelling it with a ‘y’ was somehow necessary to allow it to exist in this world at all. And it is one of the basic laws of magic that the ‘y’ rune is one of the most powerful magical symbols.”
“Of course,” Harriet half-shrugged. “Why do you think the Dark Lord’s enemies before the War referred to themselves as the Council Of The Ys?”
“The Council Of The… That’s really how it was spelled?”
“Yes. But what is it the orcs know?”
“That the dwarves kept their best craft for themselves, as always. Arghash sometimes talked about it when he was drunk. It was a secret alloy of gold, and they simply called it ‘Aurmor.’ Completely impervious to magic and steel. Extremely heavy. Only their elite Axeknights could bear it.”
“How’d the Dark Lord beat them, then?” asked Harriet.
“Oh, at the Last Battle He conjured a cloudburst that stayed right above the Axeknights for hours. They all sank into the mud without striking a blow. That cloak is covering a sheet of Aurmor. And it’s worth more than 10,000 gold, if I’m any judge.”
With that money, I could pay off the clinic and stock it for most of a year besides. Or, if the Dark Lord was in the right mood…
Freedom. Harriet’s and mine. I fingered the jeweled slave-collar around my neck. That gold could mean a future without slavery.
“We’re going to do this.” My brain snapped into action. “Harriet, get me some paint.”
“Just do it.”
Muttering, Harriet left. I returned to the back room. “Sir Dwarf, I am engaged on your behalf,” I began assembling my surgical tools. I really hoped that my very simple scheme was going to work, because if it did, then I was about to get that Aurmor for practically nothing.